Understand the Culture and Dynamics of Conflict
Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn't exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being. For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe's stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells. We, however, are not prisoners.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
How many of us work in organizations where we know only one small corner of what is possible, where we continue walking back and forth along a narrow, limited, controlled strip of existence? How many of us think, feel, and act this way in our conflicts and, in exchange for peace or security, become their prisoners, along with our opponents and organizations?
As we begin this examination of the conflicts in our work lives, let us not be prisoners of their hidden dynamics, or strangers to ourselves and one another. Let us agree to explore the cultural shapes and dynamics of our conflicts, where their hidden meanings suddenly become clear. Let us no longer experience them as dungeons, but as opportunities for learning and improvement, and as journeys that can take us far beyond the seemingly insurmountable differences that somehow keep us imprisoned.
Decoding the Culture of Conflict
What is it that keeps us imprisoned and stuck in conflict? In the first place, it is our perceptions of what has happened, including the issues over which we are arguing, the character of our opponent, our own inner nature, the ways we are able to think about and respond to it, the history of our relationship, and the unspoken expectations and assumptions in our workplaces and organizations about the meaning of conflict, whose fault it is, and what can or ought to be done about it.
A useful way of thinking about all of these perceptions, expectations, and assumptions is that they form part of, and are influenced and defined by the culture, or more specifically, by what we think of as the “culture of conflict” that is present, though largely unspoken and undiscussed, in every workplace and organization.
It may help to think of your own culture of conflict in the following way. Every society, organization, workplace, group, family, and ongoing intimate relationship creates not only occasional conflicts and disagreements, but a complex set of words, ideas, values, behaviors, attitudes, expectations, assumptions, archetypes, customs, and rules that powerfully influence how its members think about and respond to them.
These cultures of conflict are shaped by our previous experiences, particularly in our families of origin. They set the basic parameters and “default settings” for what we consider possible when we are in conflict, and define what we can reasonably expect to happen, both from ourselves and from others. They shape our capacity to ask questions, alter how we see our opponents and ourselves, and tell us what is acceptable and what is not.
Every workplace and organization, school and neighborhood, family and relationship generates spoken and unspoken rules about what people should and should not say and do when they are in conflict. Each of these entities thereby produces a distinct culture that exerts enormous pressure on its members to respond to conflicts and disagreements in ways that reflect the boundaries and traditions of the culture.
Conflict is a kind of social rupture, a potential dissolution of the bonds that keep people together, and it is important that there be rules to make sure this does not happen when disagreements are trivial, or can easily be resolved. At the same time, conflict is a time-honored way for people to get more of what they need or want, and a method of introducing necessary improvements, so it is important that disagreements not completely disappear.
For these reasons, many organizational cultures place a premium on conflict suppression and avoidance. Many highly competitive corporate cultures give rewards for aggressive conflict behaviors; others reward accommodation or compromise, and still others preach collaboration but practice avoidance and accommodation. Each of these cultures possesses a subtle set of rules regarding how their members should behave, with whom, over what, and what will happen to them if they don't.
In many workplaces, we find dismissive attitudes that regard conflict resolution as pointless or “touchy-feely”; conflict-averse cultures that reward avoidance and accommodation; aggressive, hyper-competitive cultures that permit bullying and retribution or reprisal for speaking the truth. Others develop bureaucratic rules and regulations regarding conflict that encourage passive-aggressive behaviors, promote hypocritical, self-serving leaders, or tolerate covert systems that generate chronic, morale-crushing, yet completely avoidable conflicts.
As we scan our current organizational and workplace cultures, we search in vain for signs of support for genuine collaboration with our opponents; for cultures that value open, creative dialogue regarding problems; for honest, empathetic, self-critical leadership in addressing and responding to conflicts; and for preventative, persistent, systemic approaches to resolution and learning.
It is rare in most organizational cultures that aggression, avoidance, and accommodation require explanation, whereas collaboration, honesty, openness, and forgiveness seem vaguely unacceptable. Novelist Albert Camus, observing a similar phenomenon during World War II, wrote, “Through a curious transposition peculiar to our times, it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself.”
Our colleague, Harvard University Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, has written a summary of the conflict-generating rules in many organizational cultures that discourage resolution and actively stifle innovation and change:
1. Regard any new idea from below with suspicion—because it's new, and because it's from below.
2. Insist that people who need your approval to act first go through several other levels of management to get their signatures.
3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge and criticize each other's proposals (that saves you the job of deciding; you just pick the survivor).
4. Express your criticisms freely, and withhold your praise (that keeps people on their toes). Let them know that they can be fired at any time.
5. Treat identification of problems as signs of failure, to discourage people from letting you know when some thing in their area isn't working.
6. Control everything carefully. Make sure people count anything that can be counted, frequently.
7. Make decisions to reorganize or change policies in secret, and spring them on people unexpectedly (that also keeps them on their toes).
8. Make sure that requests for information are fully justified, and make sure that it is not given out to managers freely (you don't want data to fall into the wrong hands).
9. Assign to a lower-level manager, in the name of delegation and participation, responsibility for figuring out how to cut back, lay off, move people around, or otherwise implement threatening decisions you made.
10. And above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, already know everything important about the business.
Conflict Messages in Popular Culture
The seductive, hypnotic power of negative, limited approaches to conflict are enhanced by powerful images in the popular media, to which we are continually subjected. Newspapers are sold with headlines featuring conflict following the classic editorial injunction, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Television dramas and news reports alternately accentuate or trivialize it. Sporting events bristle with it and pass it on to their fans. Soap operas play with it. Advertising captures it in images, or creates a phony, superficial world where it cannot even be imagined.
Look carefully at the messages that are broadcast daily through movies, television, newspapers, magazines, radio, and advertising about conflict, and ask yourself: What ideas are being communicated? What behaviors are being reinforced or emulated by paying attention to them? What ideas and actions do others implicitly regard as unworthy of attention or emulation? How often does the hero respond to conflict by mediating, collaboratively negotiating, or resolving it without violence or hostility?
As we experience this continual cultural assault, our threshold of acceptance for violence and aggression is lowered, our capacity for peacemaking is undermined, and we become more and more addicted to the adrenaline rush of combat. Many of the effects of this continuous immersion in conflict are immediate and pervasive. They include a brutalization of the soul, a loss of capacity for empathy with the suffering of others, an overwhelming fear of violence, an anxiety about social acceptance, a numbing capitulation to unacceptable behaviors, a cynicism about human worth, an avoidance of social intimacy, a political paranoia, a retreat into compliant behavior, and a “bread and circuses” atmosphere.
Like addicts, we are alternately being numbed and “shot up” with negative images, not only of conflict but of efforts to resolve it without violence. In common media imagery, if we are to judge by movies and television, pacifism is naive and idealistic, saintly or cowardly, or merely passive and ineffectual; listening and thoughtfulness are regarded as boring or stupid; caution is seen as cowardice; aggression is a sign of passion; and cruelty represents seriousness of character.
These images divert our attention from solving problems that appear insurmountable because of the way they are described, or because we are no longer capable of paying attention to them, or we view our opponents as evil-doers who are solely responsible for them. Increasingly we see ourselves as isolated and alone and cannot imagine banding together to bring about change. More and more we are afraid of public criticism, censure, controversy, or retaliation for violating accepted cultural norms.
In response to this cultural onslaught, many societies, workplaces, and organizations have developed internal ecosystems that promote conflict avoidance, or engage in polite, superficial communications that sweep issues under the rug. In these cultures, people spend an extraordinary amount of time hiding from honest communications, feeling trapped in unresolved disputes, being confused over unclear messages, and unsuccessfully trying to make their needs and feelings heard and understood.
People in these cultures spend little time learning what their conflicts are actually about—what caused them, why people are so upset, why they have such a hard time saying what they really think and feel, or talking directly, openly, and honestly about what matters to them. As a result, they fail to learn from their conflicts, resist change, and cannot see how they might respond more skillfully to their own obstacles and problems, or those experienced by others.
A dramatic example of this self-reinforcing spiral of conflict occurred in an engineering and maintenance division of a Fortune 100 manufacturing company in which we consulted. The engineers saw themselves as a highly skilled, well-educated elite corps. Their mission was to respond to requests from the manufacturing divisions to build equipment that would produce quality products and generate profits. Although they were not a revenue-generating center, they considered themselves to be central to the company's vision, mission, and goals.
Also in the same division was a maintenance crew that consisted of electricians, carpenters, and building managers who saw themselves as craftspeople. They were responsible for repairing the equipment that was built or purchased by the engineers and maintaining the machinery and buildings that housed it. Each group occupied a different status within the division and held the other in disdain. Not only had they developed completely different organizational cultures, languages, and attitudes that disregarded the contributions of others and described them as obstructionist, their mutual hostility began to undermine their ability to successfully complete even routine work projects and sent them into a downward spiral of conflict.
The engineers who introduced new equipment neglected or refused to provide directions, instructions, blueprints, or repair charts to the craftspeople who were required to maintain and repair it. The maintenance staff, in turn, neglected or refused to inform the engineers when they modified the equipment, repaired it, or changed the location of machinery the engineers had installed, leading to frequent and chronic miscommunications, petty disputes, and conflicts.
When the maintenance staff aggressively challenged the engineers to supply the information they needed, the response they received was hostile and dismissive. The engineers saw these r...